The Modernism Zeitgeist: Very Jewish and Very Antisemitic at the Same Time - May 2, 2022
Updated: Jul 25
Before entering the MLA program, I attended the University of Manitoba and obtained a Bachelor of Environmental Design degree. In the last two years of my undergraduate program, I specialized in the Landscape + Urbanism stream. The first year of the program was somewhat interdisciplinary but had a strong focus on architecture, architectural history and essential design thinking. During that time, I was given a brief overview of modernism, but the course focused on how modernism came about in Europe and North America as a whole. We discussed figures like Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Moshe Safdie, and Le Corbusier. Now, as an MLA student at UBC, I am looking forward to embarking on this course to revisit modernism and get a sense of how modernism played a role in forming a distinctly west coast architectural style (if there is one). As an aside, the Faculty of Architecture at the U of M is housed in the John A. Russell Building, which looks drastically similar to a building we discussed today called the Illinois Institute of Technology (designed by Mies van der Rohe). Now that I think of it, the Frederic Lasserre building too… these modernist architects clearly had an idea about what places of innovation, creativity, and academia should look like.
Top: Illinois Institute of Technology by Mies van der Rohe. Image retrieved from https://bit.ly/3wwxIU8.
Bottom left: John A. Russell Building (Faculty of Architecture, University of Manitoba) by James Donahue and Smith Carter Katelnikoff Associates. Image Retrieved from https://bit.ly/39DcivV.
Bottom Right: Frederic Lasserre Building (SALA UBC) by Thompson, Berwick & Pratt. Image Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3MyfZS4.
During our dense west coast modernism introductory class, Leslie gave us an excellent overview of modernism while I tried to absorb as much information as possible. One of the most important things I picked up during this lecture was the importance of the zeitgeist and how Canadians yearned for a new way of living that reflected post-war ideals. Returning veterans from the war needed affordable housing, transportation systems, and cultural/civic spaces. As a Jewish Canadian, I always feel I must mention that while I am incredibly thankful for the veterans that went to war to fight against the Nazis, the level of antisemitism at the time in Canada was horrific. Before the war when antisemitism was nearly unbearable in Europe, many Jews tried to seek refuge in Canada. According to the Canadian Council for Refugees, antisemitism in the Immigration Department and the Canadian public in the 1930s was dominant. Ships full of hundreds of Jews fleeing Europe were turned away by Canadian officials at our shores and sent back to Europe, where most of the passengers were murdered in the Holocaust. Canada admitted only about 5000 refugees during the war. When a Canadian official was asked how many Jews Canada would accept after the war, he answered, “none is too many” (Canadian Council for Refugees, n.d.). If Canada and the United States had been less antisemitic and more accepting, maybe half of my ancestors wouldn’t have been murdered by the Nazis.
Why do I mention antisemitism in Canada during this critical architectural movement? Because many of the architects and landscape architects we mention in our discussions of modernism were Jewish and likely dealt with antisemitism during their formative years of becoming experienced architects. Some well-known Jewish modernist designers include Cornelia Han Oberlander, Moshe Safdie, Judah Shumiatcher, Moisei Ginzburg, Richard Neutra, Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, Louis Kahn, and Phyllis Lambert. An article written by Steven Heller and published by the Atlantic called “How Jews Designed the Modern American Home” discusses an exhibition called “Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism” in San Francisco in 2014. The exhibition featured key Jewish architects and graphic, product and industrial designers of the time in America (Heller, 2014). We had similar discussions and events in Canada. On January 28, 2016, a panel discussion and lecture was hosted at Inform Interiors (which we are fortunate to tour next week) called “New Ways of Living: Jewish Architects in Vancouver, 1955-1975.” The event discussed post-war Vancouver as a hotbed of modern architecture and landscape architecture and how, under the mentorship of B.C. Binning and Frederic Lasserre, Jewish architects were key innovative thinkers of this time (The Jewish Museum & Archives of BC, 2016).
At the same time, there were many antisemitic architects. Nazi-sympathizer Philip Johnson is quoted to have referred to Jews as “a different breed of humanity, flitting about like locusts” (Shukert, 2014). The architectural community’s beloved idol, Le Corbusier, was indeed an antisemitic Hitler adorer. One of Corbusier's biographers reported that “Le Corbusier wrote in support of Nazi anti-Semitism in ‘Plans’ and in 'Prelude’ co-wrote ‘hateful editorials’” (Laffont & Gibbons, 2016).
All this is to say; I am proud to be a Jewish designer, following in the footsteps of some iconic architects and landscape architects who didn’t allow the antisemitic zeitgeist to get in the way of their contribution to this architectural movement. I think it's important that these difficult topics of antisemitism be discussed, even if it means re-thinking some of our favourite architects. However, I truly look forward to diving into transformative west coast architecture and landscape architecture projects and revisiting modernism once again.
“Brief History of Canada’s Responses to Refugees.” Canadian Council for Refugees,
Clemoes, Charlie. “Le Corbusier Was an Anti-Semite – but We Should Condemn the Architect, Not
the Buildings.” City Monitor, 14 May 2019, citymonitor.ai/environment/le-corbusier-was-anti-
Heller, Steven. “How Jews Designed the Modern American Home.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media
Company, 5 June 2014, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/06/the-jews-who-
Laffont, Sandra, and Fiachra Gibbons. “The Dark Secrets of the Man Who Opened Architecture to the
Light.” The Times of Israel, 18 July 2016, www.timesofisrael.com/the-dark-secrets-of-the-man-
“New Ways of Living.” Jewish Museum & Archives of British Columbia, 18 Feb. 2016,
Shukert, Rachel. “When a Famous Architect Is Also an Anti-Semite.” Tablet Magazine, 23 Apr. 2014,